Of Vapors

I met a man.  It was during the winter months leading up to spring, 1994. It wasn’t that type of  meeting-a-guy situation, it was purely business, and for the sake of art.

I was twenty-two years old and had been dancing hard & professionally for about four years.  I was part of a dance company that performed traditional dances from the African diaspora.  Aside from performing, a few members of the company’s lead dancers had side jobs teaching dance classes to the public.

I initially had no burning desire to teach dance to anyone. African dance was already an annexed career. Dancing was my passion, but working for a safari company was my money-making rent-payer.  Hair-braiding also pulled in a few extra dollars a month, though I had little time in my non-working or rehearsing hours to toil over people’s heads. 

Even though I had no teaching aspirations, I turned down no money-making opportunities presented to me.  I’d accepted a dance instructor gig at a local university.  A group of black students at the school decided to form an African dance troupe.  No one else in my dance company was interested, so the offer made its way to me, and I accepted.  

I was a phenomenal dancer, but explaining and teaching polyrhythmic dancing to beginners was not easy.  My task was to teach a circle of scholarly black women, no older or younger than I, to idle their critical-thinking engines and allow the feeling in their souls to lead their feet and connect their physical movement to the drums. 

Dancing inside of the rhythm involves surrendering to the ghosts that live in the backbone. Which is against the assimilation rituals of church and school that all black girls are taught in order to compete with and be accepted by “the mainstream”. 

Be small, lay your hair down, tuck your ass under, dance tight, talk low. Be palatable, no more and no less.  

African dance is overspiced with pepper and cayenne. It’s eye-watering. It is palate-scorching. It is big-legged and wide-hipped. It's sweaty and squatting with legs-gapped and broken bra straps.  The women in my class were some of the most refined and academically-advanced black people in America. Poised to be on Black History flash cards one day. Book reports to be written by school children about their barrier-breaking greatness.  I was tasked to teach them how to dance like freedom.

There were two young male students who joined the orchestra of professional drummers in providing rhythm for the dancers.  One was a tall, thin, American-born Kenyan.  He was from the Luo tribe.  I remember the measured cadence of his voice and how smooth and tight his black skin was.

The other was an African-American from Harlem.  He was one of the university’s star athletes, excelling in a few different sports.  He had strong, lean arms and rough hands.  He played the djimbe as if it was his major.  

He was twenty-one years old and had day-dreamy eyes, an easy smile and a hard, chiseled body like the silent male stars of Toni Braxton’s videos. But it was his “everything else” that held my gaze and attention.  His worldliness and intelligence. His charm.  His speaking voice was akin to Marvin Gaye’s singing voice.

He was the milkyway.  He was a Milky Way candy bar. He was a cup of warm milk & honey in front of a fireplace.  

He possessed incredible capoeira skills and would often casually take off his shirt and float into a one-arm handstand, then down into a shoulder-stand.

One night I sat next to him in an auditorium, waiting for dance rehearsal to begin.  We sat shoulder-to-shoulder talking about dance and Brazil and dance classes in New York versus the ones in Philadelphia.  As I talked to him while watching his teeth make “S” sounds and his lips form “Os”, I started to stammer, then I started mixing up words. I was speaking in tongues, in reverence to histongue.  I was trying to explain to him that I’d done Brazilian orisha dances but I kept replacing “orisha” with the word “Candomblé ” (orishas are spirits or deities.  Candomblé is Brazil’s version of Voodoo or Santería - the world in which the orishas dwell).  

Being smitten to the point of talking like a jolted scrabble board unnerved me. At twenty-two, I considered myself a worldly vixen. For better or for worse, I had been in and out of more intense relationships than many women will have over a lifetime.  TLC once said, “I could have any man that I want to. Time and place that I choose to.”  And I often did.  I considered myself impervious to men and their simple-minded charms.  

I was a maneater, but my diet was a poorly cobbled-together menu of high school dropouts and incense & body-oil merchants.  

He was a textbook-handsome, Ivy League-educated black man who was not the elitist that he was entitled to be. He was from a city more sophisticated than my own, smarter than me and probably knew more about what I was teaching than I did.  He shook loose my entire cache of insecurities, making them all float to the surface at once. I would have been covered from head to toe in blisters if insecurities and self-doubt presented themselves in physical form.

He engaged me in conversation about dance and my teachings in an earnest, intense way. He communicated with such gentleness and humility that I often wondered if he was patronizing me. I, the pitiful college dropout, hired to teach educated sisters how to get gully.

He was fine, he was kind. He was respectful and found me interesting, but I wasn’t sure if he wanted me. He confused me. And that made me fall in love.

We never hooked up and we barely worked together with the dance troupe after that tongue-tying encounter because he suffered a season-ending sports injury.  He still came to class and would try to drum but his arm was in a cast. I wanted to touch him, touch his cast, caress his head. But I didn’t want to complicate my teaching gig.  I didn't want to lose the respect of the women students by hooking up with their classmate.

The same day that I tossed a word salad about capoiera and Candomblé, I walked with him from the auditorium on campus to the train station. We made our way to the underground platform and waited for the train on a bench.  He wore a brown Peruvian knit hat with ear flaps. It had the silhouette of a white alpaca or llama on each side and white whip-stitching framed his face. The El came and we rode through the dark tunnel, chatting about drums and dances and spirituality. He talked, and I stared into the creases of his moving lips. At 34th Street, I reluctantly got off and said my goodbyes. He said goodbye. 

Though I often thought about him, I didn’t see his face again until twenty years later, when a surge of courage, nostalgia and confidence came over me and I searched for him on social media.  I didn’t find anything, so I googled his name. And I found him. 

The suffix attached to his name that spelled out “obituary” didn’t really hit me until I opened up a memorial page and the finality of seeing his birth date and death date framing his photo crashed into my chest like a tree falling onto a cottage.

He had been born when I was ten months, eleven days old. He had been born on my father’s fortieth birthday. He had died exactly seven months before his own fortieth birthday. He was big brother to three siblings.

Love isn’t unrequited unless you’ve tried and failed, or at least floated an intention into the universe in the general direction of your intended betrothed, and they’ve politely swatted it back to you like a kitten playing handball with a dead beetle. 

I had experienced neither love nor rejection from him. Which may be my fortune. My feelings for him, though strong, had never formed into anything more solid than vapors.

And now, he was a cloud. 

I sat there staring at his expiration date, not fully knowing how to be respectfully devastated.  My intentions were never set-asail. I’d never even tried. Floating in a pool of regret felt as bad as the sting of rejection. Unfinished like wood floors without stain or polyurethane.  

Dangling like a participle, my heart’s attic - filled with love-soaked maybes - collapsed into a splintered pile of dust.  Learning of his death caved me in.

As we said our goodbyes on the El platform that cold Philadelphia evening in 1994, I sincerely thought we would be seeing each other soon, having more conversations.  Maybe at the dance class. Or in a capoiera circle. Maybe a Candomblé ceremony.   There are no finalities in the goodbyes of twenty-one year-olds.

I have since reconciled this love, memory and death enough to lift the load of sadness from my chest. I've found appreciation in the short time I walked earth, danced Africa and practiced Portuguese with him.

He lives in my vapors, and in the Milkyway.

-Mary Calloway


Mary Calloway is a Philadelphia-based writer, dancer, yoga teacher and photographer. She’s been blogging (and micro-blogging) about travel and life for 15 years and is currently re-working her archived blogs into a creative non-fiction memoir.